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Image courtesy of Henry Hingst.

It struck me recently that, although I place great store in the quality of an insight, I really had no consistent way of measuring how good one of them was and no way to help other people recognise a potent insight if they stumbled across one. That has all changed.


For me 2009 is going to be the year of the insight. That’s for a number of reasons. Our agencies need them, our creative people need them and most importantly our clients need them more than ever. In these difficult times, exclusive access to a powerful new way to think about people, a brand or the wider world is going to be of immeasurable commercial advantage to the businesses we serve.
But how do you legislate for good insights? how do you describe what an insight is? How do you know whether what you have on your hands is an insight of a piece of lacklustre intellectual guano?
Until now I have simply waffled on about insights being fresh ways of thinking about brand, category or the wider world. Indeed I had a go at talking about them a bit here. But I have never really satisfactorily nailed the little fuckers, certainly not in a way that created an action standard for myself and others.
So I had another look at Simon Law’s excellent presentation on insight and the answer was sitting there rather splendidly waiting to be nicked.
He uses the word revelation, which in a way was a bit of a revelation. Because revelation is spot on is it not? An insight is a revelation. It has to be, thats what elevates it from being simply an observation.
So I had a go at working up a little definition of revelation. To qualify as a revelation an insight has to be an astonishing disclosure about real people, the brands they use or the world they live in.
So thats it, after 19 years in this business I finally understand what an insight is and have an action standard to judge them by. Just as creative briefs must be simple and interesting, the insights in them must be a revelation – to the writer, to the team, to the client and to the people the work is intended for.
No revelation or astonishing disclosure, no insight. Simple.
Let’s say that again, if you find anything masquerading as an insight on a strategy, in a document, in a research debrief, in a creative brief or in a conversation that does not appear to you to be a revelation get rid of it immediately. And pour scorn on the person or organisation touting it as such.
So where do these revelations come from. Well I’m offering you four potential sources – none of which go by the label of research or come from ‘the insight department’. Since the biggest criticism of research at the moment – particularly from our clients – is that it so rarely yields any insight.
Firstly, as I have always maintained, great insights come from within. From you, your behaviour, your anxieties, your perceptions and misperceptions. Your own experiences should always be your first port of call when thinking about insight. They may be useful, or they may prove useless but they should always be your starting point. And an ability to stay close to your instinct and experiences should be something you cultivate.
Secondly from real people not respondents. From spending time with people in their world understanding the things that are important to them. After a very long time using qualitative research I am really not sure that this can be done in group discussions and increasingly believe that it must be from real and empathetic immersion in other people’s lives. At Saatchi we call this xploring, but essentially this is simply a philosophy of engagement with people to find truth.
Thirdly from academics. Along time ago a particularly smart planner said to me, ‘why would I want to go and conduct six one and a half hour groups with the good people of Solihull and Sidcup when I can read the work of someone that has been studying this area for 20 years and written seven books on the subject. sounded reasonably convincing to me. So get into the cultural studies part of the bookshop and rack up some expenses.
And finally from what I have always called weird shit. That’s the places, conversations, websites and books that everybody else regards as rather peculiar but that often hold in them real gems about why people do what they do. I call this consumer fundamentalism because it is really about opening yourself up to the deeper and less palatable reasons for the way people behave.
Each of these places will help you discover real insight about real people and help you think more fundamentally about people and their behaviour. And I whole heartedly commend them to you.
So make 2009 the year that you commit to revelation as the key action standard by which you judge the quality of your insight. And think about different ways to depth charge your thinking with powerful new revelations.

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